Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
ameliatd (Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux, senior reporter): The residents of states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan are used to having their airwaves flooded with political ads as presidential elections draw near. But over the years, there’s actually been a lot of variation in which states have the most power to decide the future commander-in-chief. Only a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Arizona and Georgia in the toss-up category — and “as Ohio goes, so goes the nation” was proved wrong in 2020, when President Joe Biden became the first candidate to win the White House without carrying Ohio since 1960.
So have Arizona and Georgia replaced Ohio as the nation’s presidential bellwether? Is once-swingy Florida officially a red state? Let’s talk about what are the swing states to watch in 2024 — and what are the states that could be toss-ups just a few election cycles from now.
First question — admittedly it’s still early (come with your takes, I give you permission to change your mind later), but what do you think are the most underrated potential swing states for the 2024 cycle?
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): I think an underrated swing state is Florida. People have written it off after it swung unexpectedly to Republicans in 2020 and after Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis won reelection by almost 20 percentage points in 2022. But people forget that former President Donald Trump won it in 2020 by only 3 points.
If the 2024 election is shaping up to be a rematch between Trump and Biden, I think it’s reasonable to think Florida could be tight again. Do I think Biden will win it? No, probably not. But I think it’s still a better investment for Biden’s campaign dollars than, say, Texas.
gelliottmorris (G. Elliott Morris, editorial director of data analytics): I agree with you on Florida, Nathaniel — but for a separate reason. Right now the conventional wisdom is that a 2024 rematch between Biden and Trump would be closer than in 2020: Polls have the two candidates roughly tied in the national popular vote. But given Trump’s legal troubles, I think there’s a decent chance that polls will move in the opposite direction over the next year, assuming the two candidates both stay in the race, with Biden polling at or better than his 2020 levels. And if that were to happen, Florida would naturally be even closer to the 50-50 line just by virtue of the national political environment moving more to the left.
nrakich: Interesting, Elliott — so basically you’re saying you don’t think Florida will be the tipping-point state, but depending on the national environment you think it could be competitive?
gelliottmorris: Yeah, that’s right. For a similar reason, I think people are too quick to count out blue-ish states like New Hampshire and Minnesota as swing states. The partisan lean of both states is only around 3 points toward Democrats. If the political environment moves toward Republicans, they are potentially up for grabs for Trump. It’s easy to see how further degradation with the white working class could flip one or both of them, for example.
nrakich: Strongly agreed on Minnesota. It feels like people have already forgotten how shocked they were in 2016 when the “blue wall” states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania flipped to Republicans. That could easily happen again with Minnesota the next time Republicans have a strong national election.
Minnesota currently has the longest streak of voting for one party’s presidential candidate of any state in the nation — it hasn’t voted for a Republican since Richard Nixon in 1972. But that streak has concealed some close calls over that period, so I think Democrats are a bit complacent about their standing in the Gopher State.
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): I think a lot of this comes down to how you define a swing state. I tend to think about one larger group of battleground states that, under a set of realistic but more favorable conditions, could flip to one party. Then you have a smaller group of core swing states that are actually most likely to decide the outcome of the election.
We’ve mentioned a bunch of states from my larger list so far, so I’ll mention a place that’s in my core group of swing areas but isn’t a state: Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District. Under the new congressional lines, Biden carried it by a little more than 6 percentage points in 2020, not far from his 4.5-point national win. But under a number of scenarios, that one little electoral vote from the Omaha-based seat could play a role in bringing about — or avoiding — a 269-269 tie in the Electoral College. To me, that makes it underrated.
ameliatd: That’s an interesting question, Geoffrey — does some of this come down to how you define a swing state? What do you think, Nathaniel and Elliott?
nrakich: Yeah, I would define “swing state” closer to “tipping-point state” — i.e., a state (or district!) that could decide the election. If you define it simply as a competitive state, almost any state could be a swing state under the right circumstances. It’s hard to imagine right now, but it’s possible that, in 2036 or something, a Democrat or Republican will win the national popular vote by some massive margin and a normally uncompetitive state will be caught up in the wave — like Illinois voting Republican or something.
geoffrey.skelley: I took a mathematical approach to determining these lists, so brace yourself for some methodology. We often talk about a state’s partisan lean by comparing its margin in presidential races to the national popular vote margin as a way of trying to decipher how a state would perform in a hypothetical 50-50 election. However, Democrats have usually had an advantage in the national popular vote in recent times — but a disadvantage in the Electoral College in 2016 and 2020 — meaning that a 50-50 race isn’t the norm. In fact, the median margin in the national popular vote has been D+3 in presidential races from 2000 to 2020. So I took the 2020 margin in a state and compared it to the national popular vote to calculate its lean, then adjusted it by 3 points to the left to reflect that recent trend. If you then take the states or districts that fall within D+10 and R+10, you get a list of 16 states plus Nebraska’s 2nd and Maine’s 2nd District that I’d define as broader battleground states. That stretches from New Mexico (Biden won it by about 11 points in 2020) to Iowa (Trump won it by a tad more than 8 points). Within that larger group, the places between D+5 and R+5 form a core group of eight swing states and one district that are most likely to determine the outcome of the election.
|Place||2024 Elec. Votes||2020 margin||2020 lean||2020 adj. lean|
gelliottmorris: I really like Geoff’s math! I tend to think of a swing state as a state that could plausibly provide the winner of the Electoral College with their 270th electoral vote under a wide array of plausible national electoral environments. That somewhat helps us avoid counting a state like Illinois as a “swing state” in a super-Republican year, because by that point they’ve already won the election and it doesn’t really matter if the Republican gets Illinois’s electoral votes too.
But generally, I think people underestimate how quickly the political environment in a state can move, conditional on the national political environment staying the same. I mean, just look at Ohio and Iowa from 2012 to 2020: Former President Barack Obama won Ohio by 3 points in 2012, 1 point less than his margin nationally, but by 2020 it was 12 points to the right of the national popular vote. And Iowa went all the way from D+2 to R+12. So our priors for which states are “swing states” are not always super informative.
geoffrey.skelley: Elliott, I think you’re right that people underestimate the possibilities of larger swings, but I do think they won’t be as sharp going from 2020 to 2024 because an incumbent is involved, not to mention the high probability of a full-on rematch.
Looking back, you tend to see smaller shifts in years with incumbents. So my expectation is less volatility than in, say, 2016. Granted, we don’t know what sort of third-party bids might develop that could alter the landscape to some extent. Those bids won’t win, but it’s possible a No Labels ticket could take disproportionately from one side or the other, depending on what candidates they run and how the campaign develops.
gelliottmorris: Yeah, I agree that an inclusive definition gets the job done. But I do think there is a tendency to allocate campaign contributions poorly within the swing state category. For example, I think there has been a tendency for Democratic campaigns to focus on their big white whale, Texas, at the cost of other close states — New Hampshire in 2020, for example. This is part of a broader tendency for campaigns to go for their reach states instead of shoring up defense (this is the criticism ad nauseam of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, too).
ameliatd: OK, so we’ve been talking about underrated swing states. Are there any overrated swing states, as we think forward to 2024? The states that people make a big deal out of, where lots of political dollars will be spent, but are less likely to fundamentally affect the outcome?
nrakich: I don’t think so, Amelia. In general, I tend to take a broader view of potential swing states than most people, just because of the uncertainty inherent in every election. So while I would consider some states to be swing states that aren’t generally put in that category, I don’t think there are any conventional-wisdom swing states that I’d disagree with.
Ohio, maybe? But I think most people have moved on from considering it a swing state. (In 2020, it was 12 points redder than the nation as a whole, which means that barring any coalitional shifts, Biden would need to win the national popular vote by 12 points in 2024 to carry it.)
ameliatd: You don’t think the national focus on abortion could change that, Nathaniel? Abortion-rights advocates did just see a big win in Ohio last month, and they could be heading for another big victory in November, when abortion will be directly on the ballot.
nrakich: I didn’t say that individual elections couldn’t be competitive! But as you well know, Amelia, abortion access is more popular than the Democratic Party nationwide. Kentucky and Kansas voted down ballot measures last year that would have clarified that abortion wasn’t protected by their state constitutions, and it doesn’t mean those states aren’t red anymore.
Abortion could have been a motivating issue for Democrats in Ohio if this abortion measure had been on the ballot in 2024. But instead, the issue will likely be settled this fall, so liberals who care a lot about abortion may not still have a reason to turn out in 2024.
geoffrey.skelley: Nathaniel, I tend to disagree — if someone cares about abortion in 2023, they’re probably showing up in the highest turnout election in 2024. Thing is, lower-propensity voters will turn out too, so just how abortion affects the 2024 landscape may be less clear. The biggest swing in a state that flipped parties in an election with an incumbent since 2000 was Indiana’s 11-point swing from 2008, when Obama won it by 1 point, to 2012 when Mitt Romney won it by 10 points. But outside of that, the next-biggest swing was Georgia’s 5.3-point shift in margin from 2016 to 2020. So Ohio, which Trump won by 8 points, is probably not truly in play unless Biden is winning reelection comfortably.
gelliottmorris: I agree, Geoffrey. But if you view the likeliest tipping points as the Real Swing States, then you have to ask if there is enough turnout juice left to move Ohio about 8-9 percentage points to the left relative to the nation as a whole. It would have to become more Democratic than nearby Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to become the tipping point. And I would put that squarely in the “possible, but unlikely” column — even while arguing that abortion will play a big role in the election.
ameliatd: OK, so let’s pivot to the fun question I’ve been waiting for — what are the swing states of the future? I’m talking about states that maybe won’t be competitive in 2024, and haven’t been competitive in the recent past, but could look more interesting in future election years because of demographic trends or other factors. Hit me!
ameliatd: I object to BLUETAH because it requires you to misspell the state’s name, but please say more.
gelliottmorris: Well … if I’m picking a sleeper swing state, I’m picking Alaska or Utah. Alaska is on the list because its use of ranked-choice voting has highlighted a potential ideological shift in the state, where moderate Democrats are increasingly favored. Mary Peltola, the representative for Alaska’s At-Large Congressional District, is sometimes called a “pro-guns, pro-fish” Democrat for her pro-gun and pro-conservation stances.
And then I’d pick Utah because of severe aversion to Trump among the state’s Republican voter base. In 2016, independent candidate Evan McMullin was able to win 22 percent of the vote in the state. In 2018, Utah voters elected Trump-skeptic Mitt Romney to the Senate. And then McMullin won 43 percent of the vote against incumbent Sen. Mike Lee in 2022.
geoffrey.skelley: Ha, I thought you were supposed to just do one. Alaska was definitely my “maybe trending blue” pick.
gelliottmorris: Amelia’s question says “states”! I’m sorry!
geoffrey.skelley: But to that point, Trump only won Alaska by 10 points, and the state’s margin has gotten increasingly less Republican in presidential elections. Peltola’s breakthrough adds fuel to the fire.
nrakich: Hmm, interesting. I don’t see Alaska as a sleeper swing state at all. It’s always been quirky and winnable for the right kind of Democrat.
geoffrey.skelley: But we’re talking about presidential races, and I suspect the last time anyone thought of Alaska as truly competitive in a presidential race was in 1968, when Nixon won it by about 3 points. Since then, it’s been comfortably in the GOP column.
nrakich: Utah is intriguing, though I wonder how much the state is going to continue to shift left after Trump leaves the political stage (whenever that is). On the other hand, though, it is a relatively urban and suburban state, and as the urban-rural realignment continues, who knows …
ameliatd: Utah is interesting, too, because it’s the home of so many people who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Mormons). That’s a heavily Republican group where you might expect similar political behavior as other very religious and politically conservative Americans (like white evangelical Protestants). There was a lot of talk in 2016 about how Trump could end up losing Utah because of Mormons’ distaste for him. That didn’t end up happening, but there are more recent signs that younger Latter-day Saints are either leaving the church or moving toward the Democrats (or both).
geoffrey.skelley: I’m skeptical of Bluetah because Trump may be about the worst Republican candidate for president in that state, and he still won it by about 20 points in 2020. Salt Lake City gives Democrats a base of potential support, but the state is still quite red beyond there, although Biden did carry Summit County to the east and rural Grand County to the southeast.
ameliatd: OK, so what about sleeper states where Republicans could make inroads? Oregon? New Mexico?
geoffrey.skelley: New Mexico seems plausible. The trend there has been pretty flat since former President George W. Bush won it in 2004 — Democratic presidential candidates have won it four straight times, and the results were about 6 to 8 points to the left of wherever the nation was. If the nation shifts to the right, it could very well come into play.
nrakich: Yeah, I was going to say New Mexico for this round. It’s a pretty rural state, and rural areas are trending more and more Republican. It’s also the only majority-Hispanic state, and if Republicans keep making inroads with Hispanic voters, that could make up their deficit in the state, which as Geoffrey mentioned is smaller than a lot of people realize. Plus, the Latinos who live in New Mexico are unique — many of them are part of families who have lived in New Mexico for hundreds of years, and they may be more winnable for Republicans than Latinos who are closer to the immigrant experience.
geoffrey.skelley: We talked earlier about Democrats feeling too sure about a state like New Hampshire. I wonder if Virginia might fall into that category, too. It does seem to have moved just outside the truly up-for-grabs states, having trended about 6 points to the left of the country in 2020. However, Republican Glenn Youngkin carried the state in the 2021 gubernatorial election, so I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily out of reach for Republicans. To be clear, the trend has not been great for Republicans at the presidential level in the Old Dominion. But it’s still got some purple mixed in with its blue.
The challenge for Republicans in many states like New Mexico or Virginia, though, is keeping down their deficits in the major metro areas. In Virginia, Northern Virginia comes in like a tidal wave against the GOP, while in New Mexico, Bernalillo County (where Albuquerque is located) used to be much more competitive but is now comfortably blue.
gelliottmorris: And similar to New Hampshire, let’s not ignore Maine. It was only 4 points to the left of the national popular vote in 2020. It currently has a Republican senator and had a Republican governor from 2011 to 2019, so could feasibly go red with the right Republican candidates, especially if we see more education polarization among white voters.
Tipping-point Maine would provide for a lot of historical parallelism, too: In U.S. electoral history, we used to have the saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.”
geoffrey.skelley: Then only Maine and Vermont voted for Alf Landon against Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, and FDR’s campaign manager joked that, “As Maine goes, so goes Vermont.”
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